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Life on the Mississippi: Characters & Quotes

Instructor: Tina Miller

Tina has taught English, has an MFA in Creative Writing, and has several published novels and short stories.

When Mark Twain embarked on a steamboat journey down the Mississippi, he surely could not anticipate the rambunctious characters he would meet along the way. Life on the Mississippi shares his observations and interactions during such an endeavor. Hop on board to meet some of the characters and see what Twain and others say about them.

A Mississippi Life

Mark Twain's 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, reads like a humorous, fictitious piece of writing. But, alas, these are his experiences, as told through his personal, creative lens. As we coast through the character list, you will meet a myriad of people whom Twain characterized and read some of the more remarkable quotes from the book.

Oh Captain, My Captain

In a book about a life traveling along a river, in a steamboat, we must assume that we will acquaint with various river people. Twain does not disappoint. Some of the more prominent characters (aside from Twain himself) are the boat captains from and for whom Twain has learned and worked, respectively. There's the tough, effective teacher, Mr. Bixby. Per Twain, ''...he would crowd up around a point, hugging the shore with affection'' while sharing his steamboat maneuvers. Captain Mr. Brown is stern. ''He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant...we all believed that there was a United States law making it a penitentiary offense to strike or threaten a pilot who was on duty. However, I could imagine myself killing Brown...'' Isaiah Sellers is yet another captain. As Twain described, ''It was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but he didn't sit up nights to hate anybody but me.'' Of Mr. X, ''It was said that if his mind was troubled about a bad piece of river, he was pretty sure to get up and walk in his sleep and do strange things.''

The Captain
The Captain

Checkmate

What's a captain without the boat and other hands to maintain the transport? Of the latter, we meet people like Henry (R.I.P.). After an accident, his ''hurts were past help.'' Tom, a trainee like Twain, ''...tried to make himself appear to be a hero too, and succeeded to some extent, but then he always had a way of embroidering.'' Of course, there are the lesser known workers. ''When I went up to my room, I found there the young man called Rogers, crying. Rogers was not his name; neither was Jones, Brown, Dexter, Ferguson, Bascom, nor Thompson; but he answered to either of these that a body found handy in an emergency; or to any other name, in fact, if he perceived that you meant him.'' And, there's an Uncle Mumford. ''He is a man of practical sense and a level head; has observed; has had much experience of one sort and another; has opinions; has, also, just a perceptible dash of poetry in his composition.'' Stephens, having been indebted to many of the steamboat workers, is a steamboat pilot known around the circuit. ''Most of the captains and pilots held Stephen's note for borrowed sums, ranging from two hundred and fifty dollars upward. Stephen never paid one of these notes, but he was very prompt and very zealous about renewing them every twelve months.''

The Floaters and Land Dwellers

Oh, but there are more characters than the captains and workers. The boats, themselves, are characters, shifting, maneuvering, gliding across the waters. ''...when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk's office was elegant, the bar was marvelous...'' We meet the river boats John J. Roe, J. M. White, R. E. Lee, A. T. Lacey, R. H. W. Hill, and others.

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